Evidence of a Thinking Classroom

What does thinking really look like in a classroom? Systems thinking is a set of concepts, tools and habits that promote thinking. Evidence of systems thinking may suggest a movement toward classrooms where students are actually engaged in thinking.

Use of the visual tools, such as behavior-over-time graphs or causal loop diagrams, is easy to observe. It can be an artifact from a lesson or a piece of student work. graphBut there are other indicators that a classroom of learners is actively applying systems thinking that may not be so easily observed. CLDThere are certain mental models that are highly compatible with a systems thinking classroom. These mental models translate into specific behaviors such as regularly making connections between current learning and life events. A strong value is placed on learners who are engaged and able to direct their own learning.

Classrooms with more student talk than teacher talk may suggest that thinking is becoming prevalent in the classroom culture. There will be more student voice in a classroom where students take responsibility for their own learning and are encouraged to offer their ideas and suggestions to make learning more meaningful. These classrooms have structures to help students connect their learning to the real world, to personalize their learning and to solve real problems.  Subjects are addressed in interdisciplinary ways that help learners make connections.

Big-PictureSubtle changes in language may reveal a growing value on thinking. A newsletter hanging outside a second grade classroom door offers parents the “big picture” of the week, in a section entitled Academic News. The big picture encourages readers of the newsletter to take into account the sum total of what is to be learned and how to help students make connections between the discreet pieces of knowledge.

The same newsletter explains that the weekly reading objectives are to show the order of events in a story and explain what makes a character interesting. Taken directly from the Common Core State Standards, these two objectives, sequence of events and understanding the dynamics of a character, are skills that lend themselves very naturally to a behavior-over-time graph (BOTG). As systems thinking becomes part of the culture of a school, these curriculum connections to thinking will become increasingly apparent to teachers, students and parents.

In some schools that incorporate systems thinking approaches to teaching and learning, students are provided strategies for goal setting and self-assessment, including the use of BOTGs. The strategies help students focus on small chunks of measurable achievement that all students can accomplish given flexible time periods and needed support.

Systems thinking enhances a collaborative culture. Common tools and language facilitate cooperative problem solving. In systems thinking environments, all members are learners and the voice of the learner is valued.

Freshly Sharpened Pencils

Freshly-sharpened pencils. Open House. First day jitters. There is no doubt that the beginning of school brings excitement, energy, and anticipation for a new year filled with learning. We, at the Waters Foundation, want to wish everyone a very happy new year.

As the “new year” begins, we also want to take this opportunity to highlight some of the resources available on our website. If you are planning a new unit, searching for ways to increase student engagement, or trying to answer a question about systems thinking, take advantage of the resources on the Waters Foundation website. Here are some not- to- be-missed highlights from our website.

Systems Thinking in Education – WebEd Modules

The nine modules in WebEd offer learners a self-paced course in systems thinking tools and habits. Learners can work their way through all nine modules in order for a thorough introduction or can pick and choose from among the available topics. Each module is formatted in the same way for easy access to the information. Teachers often use activities from WebEd as a way of introducing a particular tool to their students.

Click on the Resources tab and you will find a searchable database that contains a variety of resources across subject areas and grade levels. You can find lesson ideas, videos, and lesson plans. Search “all habits” and “templates” and you can download a color, one-page PDF of the Habits of a Systems Thinker.

Example Webinar Recording

We are often asked for specific examples of how educators are using the tools and habits. Our library of prerecorded webinars is a great place to find these examples. You can access webinars by starting in the Events and Services tab and then clicking on webinars. Practitioners facilitate these webinars that cover a range of topics and intended audiences. A new webinar is posted every month. Register for webinars live so you can interact directly with these skilled practitioners.

At the Waters Foundation we also want to connect our followers to other websites and resources. Also in the Events and Services tab you will find a list of these connections under the website link. This list is recently updated and well worth checking out.

ST Habits App – A View of the Home Screen

We couldn’t write a resource blog and not include a reminder that our ST Habits app is now available in the iTunes and Google Play store.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of what is available. You can find articles, videos, research and upcoming professional development opportunities by exploring this site. Here is hoping you will make a visit to a “new year” resolution.

The Snowball is Rolling


A few members of the Waters Foundation team and over 200 of our closest systems thinking in education friends spent the week of July 11 in Sacramento, California at Camp Snowball. Camp Snowball began six years ago in Tucson, Arizona, as an opportunity for teams to experience systems thinking in education.  Over the course of five action-packed, fun-filled, informative days participants have an opportunity to focus on building their capacity to fuel student success.  Camp Snowball is unique in that it emphasizes bringing multiple stakeholders–students, teachers, school administrators and community leaders–together to address the need for innovation in education.CS2016-Pres

Given Camp Snowball’s emphasis on student success, it is not surprising that students were sought after for their perspectives and leadership in various module sessions, marketplace displays and PechaKuchas.  For example, the student team from Hewlett-Woodmere, shown here, shared in their PechaKucha how systems thinking informs the work of their “Youth Leadership Forum.”


Desiree Chrun, TreCS2016-icebergvor Hicks, Dianne Lam and Michael Savage, recent graduates from Ritenour High School, are interns at Washington University in St. Louis, where they lead group-modeling processes around critical issues, like gun violence.  At Camp Snowball, accompanied by Ritenour teacher Kristi Ponder, they led a module specifically for secondary students entitled, “Take the Lead!  Student Voice and Action.”  For more information on their work with community modeling process, check out their video.

Student hosts from Pleasanton Unified School District, Nicole Zhang and Samantha Corpuz, led each plenary session with knowledge and poise that helped keep all the campers engaged and on the right track throughout the week.

Each day of Camp Snowball offered a provocation to stretch our mental models about what schools can be and how we can actively work to improve them. Tuesday morning we heard from a panel that included superintendents Parvin Ahmadi of Castro Valley Unified School District, Valerie Williams of Albany Unified School District, and Steven Martinez of Twin Rivers School District.  They shared personal stories of their journey to the role of superintendent while expressing their passion and perspective on ensuring equitable opportunities for students and staff within their respective districts. During the final provocation on Thursday morning, a student panel hosted Stacey Tank, Director of Communications for Home Depot.  Tank graciously shared her personal story of handling complexity at work and at home through a healthy mix of commitment, compassion and contentment.  She inspired attendees to “cross their borders,” taking risks, seizing opportunities, co-creating all the while being certain to have “intentional fun.”

Core modules,12-hour learning sessions, which are a key component of the Camp Snowball experience, were replete with opportunities to learn together. A few of these modules with Waters Foundation connections included, “Equity and Privilege:  Overcoming Barriers,” led by Mary Scheetz featured voices from the field provided by Latish Reed and Teaira McMurtry, both from Milwaukee Public Schools.  Campers suffering from initiative overload joined Sheri Marlin to explore how systems thinking can be a red thread knitting together a number of best practices and helping teachers recognize that not everything that is new has to be separate, but rather can be integrated into a coherent whole. “An Introduction to Systems Thinking for Elementary Schools” was facilitated by the very popular Kelly Nichols and Karen Abbott, both Waters Foundation national faculty, who apply systems thinking in their classrooms on a daily basis and are highly skilled at communicating those concepts to other teachers.  Joan Yates took systems educators deeper into their application of the habits and tools of systems CS2016-ModulePresthinking in the module “Next Steps in Systems Thinking:  Becoming a More Skillful Practitioner.”  Last but certainly not least, participants in Mary Quinnan’s module, “Structures for Effective Collaboration,” learned how applying systems thinking tools and habits can improve the quality of collaboration and take decision making to another level.  School-age campers attended Camp Sunshine which was led by, Dana Sorensen and Samantha Sims, two long-time friends of the Waters Foundation.

Tracy Benson, Waters Foundation President, presided over our Project Marketplace display where we shared our recently revised training materials, promoted our new ST Habits app and announced our soon to be published book The Habit-Forming Guide to Becoming a Systems Thinker.  Waters Foundation learning partner sites that also presented at the Project Marketplace included Hewlett-Woodmere, Pleasanton, Twin Rivers, and Winston-Salem

Special thanks to Camp Director LeAnne Grillo for her coordination of the event and to her assistants Elayne Dorsey, Sally Neider and Christina Wagner. For more about Camp Snowball 2016, visit the Facebook page @CampSnowball.